Thursday Book: A singular black female

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The Independent Culture



IN THIS exhilarating collection of essays, written over 20 years, the black American feminist writer, critic and academic, bell hooks examines the hows, whys and whos of writing. She delves into the ways that class, race and gender affect writing, reading and publication. She describes the link between her writing and her spiritual practice, and tackles the difficulty of reconciling the public nature of intellectual work, inside and outside the university system, with "that space of writing that is always intimate, private, solitary". She celebrates the women writers whose work has touched her life. And she confronts the critics who have accused her of writing too much (this is her 17th book), on too broad a range of subjects.

One of hooks's bugbears is the way publishers and reviewers tend to pigeonhole writers by one aspect of their identity. She's against lazy definitions, not against the attempt to define per se. Asserting the contributions that race, class, gender, politics, sexuality and so on make to an author's work, she writes that "I am a writer who is black and female. These aspects of my identity strengthen my creative gifts... By fully embracing all the markers that situate and locate me, I know who I am."

One reason why hooks's identity-markers strengthen her gifts is that few non-fiction authors have grown from the same earth. Her work is different, refreshing, and relevant. She challenges the publishing industry's assumption that writing by white women is of general interest, whereas work by black women will sell only to black women.

She also highlights why the craft and act of writing is so important to her. If you grow up surrounded by intelligent people who have not had the chance to attain literacy, reading and writing skills assume the highest value: "They never let me forget that I was blessed... To read and write was to partake of a sacrament".

This explains, in part, why she champions confessional writing: a genre devalued both by the chat-show epidemic, which reduces confession to a symbiotic relationship between exhibitionism and prurience, and by the New Ageism that proclaims all "therapeutic" writing good, irrespective of how well it is crafted. In the essay "telling all: the politics of confession", she criticises Kathryn Harrison's tale of father-adult daughter incest, The Kiss, for its narcissism and racial undertones. She also points out that, had Harrison been more influenced by feminism, "her dangerous liaison might never have taken place". For hooks, well-written confessional writing requires rigorous honesty and technical adeptness. The writer must understand "the critical difference between confession as an act of displacement and confession as the beginning stage in a process of self-transformation".

Confessional writing should evolve and evoke its author's identity as writer and human being. It should also inform. In "from public to private: writing bone black" (Bone Black being hooks's dreamlike, painful and unsensational memoir of a misfit black girlhood), she describes how she started that book as "a psychoanalytic effort to understand the past", but published it to address "the paucity of information about black girlhood".

Elsewhere, hooks details her Christian upbringing, her studies of Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism - and her ambitious, rational and distinctly unfashionable aim of integrating her spiritual with her intellectual life. She also explains her pen name. Bell Hooks was her great-grandmother, and she took her name to "serve as a constant reminder that I was not my ideas, that they did not represent the voice of a fixed identity". It sounds kooky, out of context, but is a liberating and direct connection to the heritage of which hooks is proud, but not uncritical.

On the other hand, it seems weird to find someone who writes so much and so effectively in the first person, and who incorporates a wealth of autobiographical material in her work, using a pseudonym. But, if I am not my ideas, then I guess it follows that I am also not my story.

Accessible, lucid and down-to-earth - even when dealing with spiritual practice - these essays breathe a vivifying intelligence, and a willingness to engage inclusively with readers and writing. The essays on Toni Morrison, Ann Petry, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Cade Bambara and Emily Dickinson are celebratory but never hagiographic; those on the politics of writing and publication astute, worldly-wise, and full of critical observations that strip bare covert intellectual hypocrisy, racism and sexism. Criticisms? A repetitiveness which hooks acknowledges, and claims to be inevitable. And it would have been helpful to know the date of each piece, so as to trace over time the development of her thoughts. Overall, however, this is a fabulous collection.